By Martin McGovern
Special to the BIR
The Emmy-award winning Irish filmmaker Gerry Gregg is the man who produced the first major documentary about the Holocaust made in Ireland. His 2009 production, Till the Tenth Generation, tells the story of Tomi Reichental, now an Irish citizen, who lost 35 members of his family to Adolf Hitler’s madness.
With the making of the documentary, Reichental, 75, broke almost six decades of silence to publicly explain what happened to him in 1944 as a nine-year old when he was rounded up by the Gestapo and dispatched with 12 members of his family to Bergen-Belsen.
A native of Slovakia, Reichental moved to Ireland in the late 1950s to help establish a factory. In time, he married a member of Dublin’s Jewish community and made the city his new home. Since breaking his silence, he has been on a mission of remembrance, speaking to school and civic groups in Ireland about his experiences.
Recently, as part of the Republic’s commitment to the European Union’s Stockholm Declaration on raising awareness about the annihilation of European Jewry at the hands of the Nazis, the Minister of Integration, John Curran, commissioned the Holocaust Education Trust of Ireland to prepare an instruction program on the Shoah for schools based on the documentary.
Last month, a copy of Till The Tenth Generation was distributed to every post primary school in the Republic of Ireland to assist with education on the Holocaust.
Till the Tenth Generation will have its North American premier at this year’s Boston Irish Film Festival, with a screening at the Somerville Theatre on Sun., March 27, at 2 p.m. Gregg and Tomi Reichental will be present for the screening.
We recently caught up with Gerry Gregg to find out more about Reichental and his powerful story.
Q. How did you find out about Tomi Reichental?
A. Every so often you are blessed as a film maker to meet someone whose story will resonate with and challenge audiences long after the usual ephemeral life cycle of the 24/7 news story. I was introduced to Tomi in Dublin in 2007 by Oliver Donohoe, a former radio producer with RTE and a long time researcher on “The Late Late Show,” the world’s longest running TV chat show. With that imprimatur, I knew I was on to something. When I met Tomi, and heard his unforgettable story I realized that if I do nothing else as a director I will record his testimony and bring it to as wide an audience as possible.
Q. What is it like to meet history like this firsthand?
A. All of the production team felt a great sense of honor that we were somehow chosen to help him make his historic statement -- a statement of a survivor who witnessed the greatest crime of the 20th century. A statement that will endure for as long as humanity strives to ensure that the cataclysm is never repeated. Because if Tomi’s eye witness account of the genocide falls on deaf ears, you would have to fear for the future of humanity.
Q. You traveled back to Slovakia to visit Tomi’s home town and then on to Bergen-Belsen with him, that must have been a difficult journey?
A. It was. Every day we set out to a site associated with evil. Tomi lost 35 relatives. His paternal grandparents were gassed in Auschwitz, others were worked to death in Buchenwald, a grandmother starved to death in Bergen-Belsen, and an uncle was guillotined for anti-Nazi activities in a prison in Poland in 1943.
So it was tough, then one day we encountered by chance a 92-year-old woman outside Piestany in Slovakia. Maria Vavrova had harbored several of Tomi’s relatives in a bunker under the kitchen of her farmhouse. Altogether she saved 18 Jews at great personal risk. Why did she do it? Tomi asked. Why not? she replied, “Aren’t we all the same.” That brave woman is today recognized by the state of Israel as a “Righteous Gentile.” It was a humbling experience to meet someone so selfless and so matter of fact about defying a tyranny that knew no boundaries.
Q. Tell us about the Irish reaction to his message?
A. Tomi is received very well wherever he goes. Teachers never have to ask for silence and respect; Tomi just seems to command it by his very presence. The letters flood into him every week. The impact is uniformly benign and positive. Only recently a young woman wrote to him in despair. Her father had left the family home. Her mother was an alcoholic. The teenager was contemplating suicide. Then Tomi came and told his story of survival and somehow inspired her to keep going. Tomi’s educational role is full of little mitzvahs like that. Good things happen when he is around.
Screening at Stonehill
On Mon., March 28, Gregg and Reichental will be at Stonehill College for a screening of the documentary at 7 p.m. in the Martin Institute on campus. The public is welcome to attend the presentation, which is free. For more information, call 508-565-1321 or visit stonehill.edu/tomi.xml